HC Deb 28 October 1986 vol 103 cc167-74 3.37 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffery Howe)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council which I chaired in Luxembourg on 27 October. The Minister for Trade represented the United Kingdom.

The Council approved the Commission's intention to launch immediate action in the GATT with a view to securing rapid removal of Japanese discriminatory barriers to imports of alcoholic drinks. The Council also decided to keep under close review the conditions under which Japanese products are exported to the European Community.

The Council welcomed the agreement with the United States settling the outstanding trade dispute over citrus fruit and pasta.

The Council also discussed briefly the negotiations with the United States about the trade effects of enlargement, the proposals for the 1987 generalised scheme of preferences and recent Canadian trade measures.

Agreement was also reached on new Community programmes in energy and telecommunications. These include allocations of £29 million to Northern Ireland.

The Council welcomed the recent agreement on a revised Community mandate for the negotiations with Mediterranean countries on the maintenance of their trade access to the Community following the accession of Spain and Portugal.

The Council considered its reaction to the expressed wish of COMECON to enter into official relations with the Community as well as possible bilateral agreements with Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. It confirmed the importance of mutually beneficial commercial and economic links with eastern European countries.

The Council reached agreement on the implementation of a Community-wide ban on imports of gold coins from South Africa. The member states also adopted a decision suspending new investment in South Africa by firms and individuals in the Community. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will he announcing shortly details of how this measure will be implemented.

The Council approved proposals to grant the Palestinian populations of the west bank and Gaza preferential access to the Community market, and agreed to establish a fresh aid programme for those territories. These proposals will bring practical help to those living in the occupied territories. They were the result of a British initiative. They underline our continuing commitment to the search for peace in the region.

I gave my Community colleagues a full briefing on the Hindawi case and presented them with the conclusive evidence of Syrian official involvement. They were both impressed and disturbed. The Greek representative could not associate himself with any measures or statement against Syria or the Syrian Government. With that sole exception, all Ministers expressed their collective sense of outrage that the agencies of a state had been involved in such an incident. And they expressed full understanding and support for the action which we had taken. They undertook that no partner would accept as a diplomat any of the Syrians who had been expelled from London in connection with this case.

We instructed the Political Committee to meet on 6 November to continue this discussion. By that date ambassadors in Damascus will have presented the Syrian Government with the evidence of what has taken place, and will have reported back. We have agreed to consider at the next ministerial meeting in London, on 10 November, the possibility of action in relation to arms sales to Syria; high-level visits to and from Syria; the activities of Syrian embassies in the member states; security arrangements affecting the operations of Syrian Arab airlines. Yesterday's proceedings went some way—but by no means as far as the House would have wished —to send the Syrian Government a clear message that their behaviour has been intolerable.

Finally, Syria is one of the countries for which the Community's Mediterranean financial protocols expire next Saturday. Renewal requires unanimity. There can be no question of the United Kingdom agreeing to further financial assistance for Syria in present circumstances.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

First, I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I welcome the agreement which was reached yesterday that the Palestinian inhabitants of the west bank and Gaza should now have preferential access to the Community markets and should enjoy a new aid programme. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us what other initiatives were suggested yesterday to promote peace between Israel and the Arabs? He rightly reminded the House on Friday that the absence of that is the fundamental cause of many of the terrorist acts which we have tragically witnessed in recent months.

Beyond that, we must accept that the outcome of yesterday's meeting was deplorable. Although Community Ministers had all agreed at earlier meetings under the Home Secretary, for example, that they would adopt concerted action against terrorism, half the Foreign Ministers concerned did not bother to turn up yesterday, and none of the other Foreign Ministers supported the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposals.

Have any of the Community Governments now accepted the responsibility of protecting British interests in Syria? He was not able to tell us on Friday whether any other Government had accepted this responsibility and I hope that he will be able to do so this afternoon. The Opposition hope very much that the meeting on 10 November will be more successful in achieving common action in the areas which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has listed.

The House will be aware that the Opposition fully supported the Foreign Secretary's statement on Friday, and we support today his decision to impose financial and economic sanctions on Syria by vetoing any proposals for financial aid that may come before the Community. This is a precedent which I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be prepared to follow in respect of other countries. Financial sanctions will undoubtedly cause unemployment and economic difficulty to the people of Syria—and in the circumstances, in my view, rightly so.

I pass to what the Foreign Secretary had to tell us about the discussions on South Africa. He must have found himself in some difficulty yesterday in arguing with his colleagues that they should not allow commercial or political national interests to impede concerted action against terrorism when Her Majesty's Government have done precisely that when the Community has considered concerted action against the South African Government, who have been guilty of terrorism on a large scale, especially in Namibia, and of armed attack on friendly states.

I should like to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman some questions about the discussions on South Africa yesterday. First, why has the Community agreed to exclude Namibia from the scope of its sanctions, thereby opening a gaping hole in the ring fence which it is supposed to erect around South Africa? The American Congress, now overriding the President's veto, has included Namibia in the American sanctions. Why has the Community excluded iron ore and ferrous metals from the scope of sanctions? Has the Community now accepted responsibility for ensuring that its members carry out the decisions that have already been taken in the last few months on sanctions against South Africa?

The Foreign Secretary must recognise that action against terrorism must be indivisible if we take it seriously, and his case against the pusillanimous behaviour of some of our Community partners over Syria will be enormously strengthened if he does not show the same pusillanimity in dealing with sanctions against South Africa.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman has, characteristically, spoilt his presentation of quite a reasonable set of points. The discussion on South Africa that took place yesterday was concerned simply with the enforcement of the measures agreed at the meeting on 16 September. We were able to reach agreement on the method of doing that by adopting definitions common to the Community and generally used within comparable provisions of the European Coal and Steel Community. The House will have a further opportunity of asking a large number of questions about South Africa during ordinary Foreign Office questions tomorrow.

Mr. Healey

I will.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will, and I hope that he makes a better shot of it than he has today.

As to the substance of the matter, there is no question of a whole range of commercial and economic sanctions against Syria in the decision announced yesterday. What I announced, which was plainly accepted by the House, is that we will not assent to the granting of further financial aid to Syria. That seems to be entirely right and is supported on all sides of the House.

As for British interests, no decisions have yet been arrived at about whether, and if so in what fashion, interest sections will be established either in Damascus or in London.

With regard to the support of other Foreign Ministers, it should be recognised that all of them, with the exception of Greece, are prepared to take further action. Some of that further action will be for consideration at the meeting to be held on 10 November. One of the central problems yesterday was to secure unanimity from all the 11 on the same action being taken. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, as does the entire House, that we want to see a more concerted and effective set of decisions coming from the Community at the next meeting.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome of the provisions made in relation to the Palestinians on the west bank and Gaza. That in itself is a useful initiative. We shall be returning to the subject of wider middle eastern questions when we next meet in political co-operation.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am bound to take into account the fact that another statement is to follow that is of considerable importance, followed by a ten-minute Bill and an important Church Measure on which there is a great deal of interest. I shall allow questions on this matter to continue until four o'clock, but I bear in mind that there will be foreign affairs questions tomorrow.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that many in this country believe that our so-called partners in the Community yesterday behaved in a tardy, timid and, above all, fatuous manner? Does he also agree that the behaviour of the French is particularly craven? If they cannot rally round in the cause of the fight against terrorism, what hope is there for any coherent Community policy on anything?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I share absolutely my hon. Friend's sense of disappointment at the failure to reach unanimous agreement yesterday, but it should be recognised that on very many of the measures before my colleagues the majority of them were prepared to take action of the kind we advocated. The problem was to secure unanimity from all of them in relation to all the measures we were seeking. It is for that reason that we shall be coming back to the matter on 10 November. It was regrettable that the French were unable to agree to a majority of the measures that we wanted, but I noted with interest that the President of France, in a television interview today, has said that, if proof of conduct of a terrorist kind was there, Europe's response ought to be total firmness. He continued: there should be no compromise with terrorism and, above all, no compromise with states involved with terrorism. I look forward to the fulfilment of that statement at our next meeting.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

How can it be thought appropriate, however outrageous Syrian behaviour may have been, to suspend EEC aid to Damascus when no such action has been taken to abrogate the EEC agreements with Israel, which has been guilty of much grosser offences of state terrorism against Lebanon against Syria against Iraq against Tunisia, and, for many years, against the Palestinian people both in Palestine and in the Palestinian diaspora?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman has presented his characteristically specific view on the matter with characteristic vigour. The question of renewing any financial protocol in favour of Syria will not be supported by the United Kingdom. I am sure that that is right.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Did my right hon. and learned Friend discuss with his colleagues the abuse by some embassies of diplomatic baggage, whereby weapons and instruments of death can be spread about? If so, what progress did he make in reaching some agreement that all embassy baggage should be scrutinised in the same way as any other baggage coming to this country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend raises a matter that has been discussed in the House many times. It was not discussed by European Community Ministers yesterday. The matter was fully considered by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of this House, which recognised the difficulty of attempting to impose a universal ban of the kind that my hon. Friend describes. We have made plain our willingness, in the event of manifest danger to human life, to provide for screening of diplomatic baggage. To go beyond that would involve real and substantial difficulties for the handling of ordinary diplomatic baggage for embassies, including our own.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Did the Foreign Secretary fail to persuade some European Governments of the facts of Syrian officials' complicity in terrorism, or does he believe that they continue in a long pattern of turning a blind eye to Syrian activities in this field while choosing softer options, such as Libya, to be the target of their attack? Does the Foreign Secretary believe that he has now persuaded the Prime Minister that sanctions are not immoral and were appropriate in this case? Does he believe that better preparation could have led to a clearer signal?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I persist in repudiating the parallel that the hon. Gentleman tries to make, along with the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), between the way to treat state-directed terrorism and wider arguments about sanctions. Regarding the conviction of European countries, they were impressed by the quality and weight of the evidence advanced about Syrian involvement in the matter. There was no doubt about that. The difficulties arose about their willingness to agree—all 11 of them—on the same set of additional measures. In those circumstances, we are conducting the discussion further on 10 November.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that while the reaction of the French Government is disappointing, they nevertheless have hostages at risk, and that must colour their attitude? Will he assure the House that everything possible is being done so that we do not have hostages at risk? If they are unfortunately taken, what retaliatory action do we plan?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the difficulties created for everyone in such circumstances by the existence of hostages. Some hostages of our nationality are detained in the region. There is no way in which a state can guarantee the safety of its citizens from the risk of being taken in that way. I am sure that the firmest foundation of our policy on hostages remains our clear commitment to the view that we make no deals in respect of such matters.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman mean that he did not tell his colleagues of the disgraceful misuse of a diplomatic bag by the Syrians for the importation of terrorist weapons? Did he not discuss with the Italians their proposals for electronic surveillance of the bag? What does he intend to do about the arsenal of terrorist weaponry which is in the Syrian embassy here? Will he simply let it go either abroad or to other terrorist bodies in this country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that those matters are the subject of current consideration not only by our Government but also by the Italian Government. As far as I know, the Italian Government have not said in what way they intend precisely to put into effect their recent statement on the matter. There are real difficulties, studied and accepted by the Foreign Affairs Committee, about imposing a general ban or a general requirement for surveillance on bags of that kind.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is not the sickeningly inadequate response by our EEC allies to the Syrian terror not only a betrayal of our commitment but an incentive to further terrorism? Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell the House whether the French are continuing to sell arms to the Syrians?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. and learned Friend must understand—I say this with the greatest respect to him —that it will not be helpful to promote the collective response that is necessary in such circumstances if one commences by making a judgment about betrayal and sickeningly inadequate responses.

Mr. Lawrence

But that is what it is.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

No. Let me amplify that further. For example, in relation to my hon. and learned Friend's specific question about arms sales, one of the matters under discussion yesterday, on which, already yesterday, the majority of the Foreign Ministers present were prepared to agree, was a ban on further arms sales. One Government representative who specifically endorsed that was France's representative, so it is wrong for my hon. and learned Friend to take that particular case as an example. I repeat: the French Government's representative was willing to join the majority in endorsing a ban on future arms sales to Syria.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)

Did the Foreign Secretary discuss with his EEC colleagues the disclosure by Bernard Kalb of the fact that the American Administration had been deliberately lying about Libya, and had been involved in all sorts of dirty tricks to try to destabilise Gaddafi's regime? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman now make a statement admitting that the reasons for bombing Libya were wrong, and that the Government have been misled by President Reagan, therefore? Will he give an explanation and, more importantly, make reparations to the Libyan people for that mistake?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The case on which the House reacted on Friday about Syrian Government involvement was a comprehensive and convincing case, which convinced my colleagues yesterday, with the exception of the Greek representative, as it convinced the House on Friday. There was no question of it being founded on evidence from the United States or anywhere else. The hon. Gentleman's questions about the bombing of Libya should compel him to consider the legitimacy of the bombing in Afghanistan.

Sir William Clark (Croydon, South)

Although I accept what my right hon. and learned Friend says about future arms contracts, will he give a categoric assurance that the present contract that the French apparently have with the Syrians will be cancelled?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot answer questions in detail about existing arms contracts with the French Government or any other Government. I am making it clear to the House that the French representative made it clear yesterday that France was ready to agree on the spot to the suspension of all arms sales to Syria — [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"]— from member states in present circumstances.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

When the French President said on television, If the evidence against Syria is fair, was he not saying that many of the Ministers hoped that the evidence against Syria would be a little more reliable that the unequivocal evidence against Libya that was brought forward in the House and paraded before Privy Councillors only, which enabled the Prime Minister to carry out her policies, and which has now been revealed to have been fabricated entirely in the White House?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman is straying far from the statement and questions on it. There is no foundation whatsoever for the implications of what he is saying.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Although many of us may not have expected much more support from our so-called European allies, my right hon. and learned friend will no doubt be encouraged by what has been said on both sides of the House about the extra citrus trade privileges for the west bank, but is he aware that the present quota is kept exclusively for Israeli goods and is not spread to the occupied territories? Therefore, will he assure the House that that will be the case with the new allocation?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The point raised by my hon. Friend is precisely the point that led us to propose new arrangements, which will involve an extension of existing arrangements for access to the Community market for producers on the west bank and the Gaza strip.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The Foreign Secretary has led the House to believe that he has irrefutable evidence linking the Syrian Government with acts of terrorism. Was he able to place that evidence before his EEC ministerial colleagues? If he did, why were they not convinced, or has he more evidence that he will produce at the meeting in November?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has missed the point of my answers to earlier questions. I have already said twice that, with the exception of the Greek representative, all my European colleagues were impressed and convinced by the evidence that I laid before them, just as this House was convinced on Friday. There is no question of their not being convinced.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that the talks between COMECON and the Community were broken off in 1980 because of the invasion of Afghanistan? Can he tell the House what has changed in Afghanistan to enable those talks to be resumed?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Matters have changed since then in a number of respects, although not, unfortunately, in Afghanistan. It seems to us to be sensible to clear the way for bilateral trade agreements between the Community and the member states of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and in that context to look at the proposals for a relationship with the CMEA.

Mr. Healey

The Foreign Secretary made one statement that must have disturbed every hon. Member. Does he really mean that the Government do not know whether any other Government will represent Britain's interests in Damascus after the rupture of diplomatic relations? That would be a uniquely dangerous situation in which to leave 250 British citizens. In Libya, our interests are represented by Italy and our interests in the Argentine are also represented. Is the Foreign Secretary saying that he does not know whether any other Government will represent our interests in Syria?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The right hon. Gentleman has made a good point, although not in the way he put it. He must listen to me with care. There is no problem about getting another Government to represent British interests in Syria, but the necessary consent from Syria is not yet forthcoming. The right hon. Gentleman is right to be anxious about that.